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Department of Education grants Kansas’ No Child Left Behind waiver request

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, July 19, 2012, at 9:26 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, July 19, 2012, at 6:56 p.m.

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Kansas education leaders say the days of tying a school’s reputation to one single test score – the controversial hallmark of the federal No Child Left Behind Act – may have ended Thursday.

“It’s very significant,” said Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker. “That unrealistic goal that was set for us back 10 years ago is now gone.

“This allows us to focus on multiple measures of student and school achievement. … It’s not just about one test on one day of the year.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education approved Kansas’ request for flexibility in meeting some of the provisions of No Child Left Behind, including its mandate that every student at every school must pass state reading and math assessments by 2014.

Kansas was one of six states to be approved for waivers Thursday. The others were Arizona, Michigan, Mississippi, Oregon and South Carolina.

So far more than half the states in the country – 32, plus the District of Columbia – have received waivers.

Eight of those waivers, including Kansas’, are conditional, meaning the states have not entirely satisfied federal requirements and parts of their plans are under review.

States granted waivers will be exempt from the No Child Left Behind requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014 – a goal the nation is still far from reaching. In its place, the state will implement plans aimed at improving low-performing schools, increasing teacher efficiency and preparing students for college and careers.

The assessment tests students take each spring are still part of the objectives, DeBacker said. For instance, schools must reduce the number of students scoring below proficient by half by the year 2020.

Another key component of the state’s waiver requires Kansas to evaluate teachers and school leaders based at least in part on student achievement.

“We kind of danced around that in previous (waiver) applications, and they saw that,” DeBacker said.

She said a statewide commission that includes representatives from teachers unions will meet regularly in coming months to study the issue and develop a recommendation by April.

Kansas submitted its application last February after the Obama administration announced an initiative to grant states waivers from many mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.

A new accountability system based on multiple measures, including attendance rates, graduation rates, proficiency goals and closing achievement gaps, will be in place for the upcoming school year, DeBacker said.

Wichita Superintendent John Allison, who along with other school officials has bemoaned many of the mandates of the federal law, said the waiver “stands to have a dramatic impact on how student progress is measured.”

Since 2004, the Wichita district has been identified as “on improvement” for missing state test targets at schools that receive federal Title I funding. The on-improvement list, which last year included Derby, Haysville and Bluestem, applies only to schools and districts with large numbers of low-income students.

Also because of No Child Left Behind sanctions, 12 Wichita schools must offer tutoring or transfers because they haven’t met state improvement targets. Seven middle schools were restructured – a process that included teachers having to reapply for their jobs – because they did not make adequate yearly progress for six consecutive years.

Allison said he couldn’t immediately explain how the waiver might affect Wichita schools, including whether the district will continue to offer free tutoring and transfers to other schools. The final waiver document is more than 350 pages and was updated just last week.

“Because we are not familiar with the changes that may have been made during the negotiations process … it will take us some time to sort through details,” Allison said.

DeBacker, the state commissioner, said the waiver review process “took a little longer than we had anticipated, but I believe we gained a stronger plan through the process.”

The state’s new system of measuring student progress won’t discount standardized tests altogether, she said.

“If anything, I think the accountability is higher,” DeBacker said. “The test is one measure, but it’s not the only measure. … There will be more concentration on science and social studies and integrated learning that is so much more than just reading and math.”

In a prepared statement, Sen. Jerry Moran said the waiver approval meant “much needed freedom from the burdensome requirements of No Child Left Behind.”

But he criticized the Education Department’s process of “dangling relief from federal mandates in front of states in exchange for agreeing to adopt (Obama) administration policies,” saying it could lead to further top-down mandates.

Moran said a complete overhaul of No Child Left Behind should be a priority for Congress, but neither chamber currently plans to debate reauthorization measures.

In the meantime, DeBacker said, Kansas schools soon will begin another school year and a new era of measuring school achievement.

“We can finally get out of the mindset that it’s all about a test score, and we can return to teaching a full spectrum in our classrooms,” she said.

“It’s going to take some time and adjustment, because for many of our teachers, this system is the only one they know,” she said. “We’ve been under No Child Left Behind for 10 years, and it’s like breaking a bad habit.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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